After grazing the west coast of Florida in my previous blog, let me take you now to the east coast, the side that starts at the Georgia border and ends at the very bottom of the Florida Keys, via Miami.
After an interesting visit to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, complete with stone fort, old town, military barracks, and other remnants of the first settlers' adventure in the New World, just about 500 years this year, let's continue with the less-known locales.
Enough history for now. As you drive down the coast using Route 1 or A1A along the beaches (don't go on I-95), make sure to stop at Flagler Beach, a tiny shoreside hamlet where the beach is made of dark orange sand, colored by the unusual hued crushed sea shells. Better not blink, one beach, one fishing pier, that's all there is! The last time we visited, a school of nurse sharks were hanging by the shore line. Despite my son insisting that it was the kind of shark that did not attack, I did not swim that day, and neither did he.
Keep following the Atlantic Ocean until you reach Daytona Beach. This is where car races used to take place on the hardened sand wide beach, until the sport became so popular, the city built a racetrack (NASCAR). Some people still think you can drive on the beach. It's also party-central for spring breakers all over, and has all the necessary attraction for the young. Outside of race season and college crowds, Daytona has a great pier and nearby amusements boardwalk, somewhat reminiscent of the Santa Monica pier in California.
From there, drive onto Route 92 towards Deland, then a tiny bit south on Route 17, to hook up with 44 that will take you to Mount Dora. Perched high above Lake Dora, this tiny town has the special trait of not only being the exact center of the state of Florida, but also to be built on hills, a rarity around here. This is a step back in time, as the village sports a multitude of pastel-painted Victorian houses, some are B&BS, outside terraced cafés, bookstores, unique gifts shops, good restaurants, a lakeshore recreation area, an old railroad depot, and walks up and down its steep streets, it's fun. In November, a Scottish Highland Festival brings music and events of a different kind, with malt tastings, tartan parade and other exotic celebration. A little bit of Europe right next to Mickey Mouse's empire and way of life. Here you will fell disconnected from America for an hour or two.
Now of course, you may have to zip by Orlando, but you don't have to stop. Reach the coast again and go directly to Cocoa Beach, then on to Cape Canaveral, the place where dreams of the Moon and other intergalactic destinations have all started. The Kennedy Space center is where NASA has its Earth station, and the amazing museum is truly a scientific wonder not to be missed. If you're lucky, there might even be a launch of some sort, rocket or other spatial apparatus, on the day of your visit. The marshes around the center keep the facility secure from invasion and gawking, you must stay afar, bring binoculars.
After you leave the space center, stay on A1A and slowly cruise down south on the sliver of land that will eventually bring you to Stuart, where you will have to leave that road and take Route 5 down to Jupiter. Then cross to Jupiter Island and look for the (little) sign that indicates the entrance to the Blowing Rocks Preserve. The unique phenomenon here is the yellow-ish Anastasia limestone shoreline. During high tides (you have to time this) the rushing sea brutally breaks against the rocks and forces plumes of saltwater up to 50 feet skyward through the holes in the stone, like ferocious mini geysers, an awesome sight.
Then head down south to West Palm Beach and go west on 98 or 80 (same thing) until you reach Lion Country Safari, a gigantic zoo where animals roam free, and you are in a cage, err...your car. I am not a fan of zoos, I hate looking at animals in cages or small enclosures, makes me sad and teary. But this place is different, the animals roam somewhat free, can run wildly and enjoy a larger scale of territory, albeit smaller than the space they would have in the wild. No convertibles allowed here. Legend has it that the entrance of the park was the original inspiration for Jurassic Park, the movie. Who knows? Will Mr. Spielberg care to comment?
Lions will lounge near your tires, one jumped on our hood once, and had to be dislodged by park rangers with long spears, it was not happy. Ostriches will pick at your windows; I swear one tried to eat my windshield wipers once. Giraffes, zebras, rhinos rolling in mud, deer, gazillions of birds and land-sea/air creatures are free to roam within the limits of the gates of course. How many of you have actually touched the cheek of a giraffe? If you care to add to the African feel, you can even stay overnight at the nearby camping ground where lions' roars will keep you up at night. Amazing!
Keep on going west on Route 80 or 98, also called 441, I know, it's confusing, until you reach Lake Okeechobee, where you will have to go up on the levee to see any water at all. This is the water reservoir for the southern part of Florida, and I have seen this lake dry in years of severe droughts. Now hook up with Highway 27 south and pack some sandwiches and liquids when crossing South Bay, as nothing is on that road for a while. This is another way to cross the Everglades at a slow pace. The landscape here is sprinkled with sugar cane fields and watch towers (not to watch TV!); this is where we saw a yellow panther once, barely bigger than our golden retriever, only sleeker, running fast across the road to the other side of nothingness.
This is going to take you for about 80 miles through the middle of the State, possibly without seeing another soul around. Not quite Death Valley, but dry nevertheless.
When you will arrive in Miami, the shock of the city skyline will show you how close the metropolis is to the swamps and its alligators, found sometimes in the sunroom (called...Florida rooms) of condos lying at the edge of the Everglades. You see, builders think it's fun (or they would use the word "fancy") to erect apartments around a pond, sometimes even with a geyser in its center. Well, that pond was there before the construction even began, and alligators lived in that body of water originally connected to the wetlands. After construction had cemented the sides of the said pond, the beast were trapped, reproduced, outgrew the habitat, and escaped, trying to find a better place to live, sometimes encountering humans on the parking lot, or eating a snack of dog while wandering around, looking for the exit. Sad but true.
Now, Miami is Miami, and I won't pretend to guide you through the vast city with myriad of things to see and do, but I will point out a few of my own personal favorite places. You can ask a hundred people, they will have a hundred different favorites about Miami, the city under the sun.
The Spanish Monastery. A 12th-century structure that was transported from Spain stone by stone in 11,000 wooden crates across the ocean, to end up in North Miami. The church is an active one, also used by many grooms and brides for their wedding, in a beautiful setting among very old stones and a truly peaceful garden.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens. My favorite spot in the city, 83 acres of trees and tropical flowers, lakes and trails. Even a cute little outdoor café (is there a place in the US that has nothing to eat?) This is where I became a tree-hugger, yes, I embraced baobabs from Africa and strange trees unknown to me. The orchids are fabulous; the chocolate trees really give beans. This is where spending a day is a meditation on nature, in the middle of a busy metropolis.
Little Havana. Café con lecche (coffee with milk), Cuban toast (white bread buttered and toasted), pastelitos (flaky crust jelly pastries), arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), these delicacies are only found in Latin parts of the World, and in Miami's Little Havana quarter. The small hole-in-the-walls windows dispensing the famous coffee are at every corner, serving strong black coffee, almost like a syrupy liquor. Old Cuban men smoking their authentic (and prohibited) cigars at breakfast time is a typical sight. The street festival on Friday nights is a joyful event. My friend Christine who visited the island of Cuba (where I may not go) told me that the only things the Cuba islanders have in their lives are "Rum, sex and music."
The Redland. A secret part of Miami, even unknown to some of the city's residents, a vast agricultural land area, west of Miami, with farms and organic growers. We visit each February the U-pick corners where you have to walk the land yourself with a basket and bend to pick your own tomatoes, strawberries, onions, squash and flowers, to the enjoyment of city children who don't always know (depending on their age) that some fruits and veggies grow out of the earth. To build a house in this "rural" part of town, the zoning commission enforces a 5-acre policy that must be own before a house can go up, to thwart intensive development and preserve the natural beauty of the land.
The Biltmore Hotel. A magnificent structure in the middle of Coral Gables, in the center of Miami proper, the edifice on several levels has the most amazing lobby, a vast and cavernous sanctuary filled with high cages of exotic birds. The Champagne brunch here is a lovely experience, with live classical chamber music, served outside under the arches of the terraces. The outdoor swimming pool is claimed as the largest hotel pool in the USA, at an amazing 22,000 square foot of fresh water. The large building became a war hospital during WW II, and is one of the iconic historical places in town. Go for lunch, for brunch, for a swim, for a night, it's a delightful place to visit.
Matheson Hammock Park. Driving through the majestic alleys of Coconut Grove, where the wild tropical foliage keeps you in the shade under the blaring sun, will take you to this park on the sea shore with trails around mangrove trees that sport the only lagoon in my life! No sharks here, no jelly fish, nothing to scare little children, or others. The quiet setting is always breezy and perfect for kites. Oaks and banyan trees canopy sometimes look like they wish to regain their place against the encroaching human growth, closing on the roads and the houses of the Grove in dramatic stretch of their branches.
Did you notice how I never even mentioned South Beach, the over-exposed beach island of Miami, where you don't need insiders' feedback to find your way around?
Next, we'll go to the Keys, and to a couple of places in the center of Florida.
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